Perfect Days Celebrates Spare, Mindful Escapism

Critics love Wim Wenders’s Perfect Days for its depiction of a happy and humble Japanese toilet cleaner. But it’s really a fantasy of escape — one that seems to appeal mostly to the affluent.

Kōji Yakusho plays Hirayama, a toilet cleaner, in Wim Wenders's new film Perfect Days. (The Match Factory / YouTube)

I can see why people love Perfect Days, the new Wim Wenders film about a Japanese toilet cleaner named Hirayama (Kōji Yakusho) who lives a quiet, solitary life of aesthetic appreciation expressed through his love of music, photography, and gardening. It’s a prevalent fantasy of our times, that we could somehow escape through ascetic choices the worst effects of our lives under capitalism, which tend to be brutal and chaotic, loud and sloppy, cluttered with too much stuff, cacophonous with too much yapping public discourse.

The fantasy is that somehow we could be in it but not of it, living simply and beautifully, owning very little but caring deeply for our few possessions. And not ruled by technology! That alone would be enough to return us toward a Hirayama-like mindful appreciation of the lovelier details of nature and art that still linger on in generally ugly, decaying postindustrial spaces.

Hirayama even has a particular “tree friend” in a small park that he photographs daily at lunchtime. Do you have a tree friend? Of course not. That shows you’re not living right.

Remember the version of this fantasy that led to the recent Marie Kondo mania, springing up around the idea of giving away all your excess belongings except those that “spark joy”? And then carefully tending your few remaining possessions so your whole life is lived in something like a highly curated You Museum, with an artfully folded favorite sweater on one shelf and a small number of books neatly lined up on another, all the same height, with titles facing outward? And maybe one wee, perfectly tended plant as a life-affirming embellishment?

Much of the effect of this movie is like that. It made me profoundly uneasy. I know this fantasy well, and I’ve always associated it with wealth.

Rich people can afford to have that one perfect sweater that wears like iron and always looks wonderful, among their other well-made and lovingly maintained objects, which have aesthetic status as well as lasting functionality. Working-class people are inclined to live in more confined spaces and have a lot of crap heaped up all over the place. Their belongings tend to be cheap and always breaking down or wearing out fast and having to be replaced by more crap, and there’s so much pressure involved in making a living, just keeping things in any kind of rough order is tough. Nobody’s sitting around lovingly tending their one precious object per shelf.

Though I’ve never attempted to live out the fantasy, the image of an impossibly ascetic life still shadows the messy one I actually live. And in this film, it’s a lower-class worker living the dream.

Watching scene after scene representing Hirayama’s unrushed daily routine, waking in his spare one-room apartment lying on a thin mattress on the floor, with one coverlet and one flat pillow, bedding he immediately folds and stacks in a corner upon rising, I cringed at the implied rebuke. See how pristinely he lives, this humble worker!

He wears a royal blue jumpsuit, his official uniform, that hangs by itself on a hanger on the wall. He embellishes it with a small white towel worn around his neck that is so artfully tucked into the collar of his uniform, it has the effect of an ascot. As he leaves to go to work, he passes a narrow shelf in the hallway leading to the door that has only the necessary objects on it, carefully spaced apart, such as wallet, keys, and an old-fashioned wristwatch. Though he carries a cell phone, he almost never uses it — for one thing, he almost never speaks — and he remains ignorant of the time-sucking world of the internet. He thinks Spotify is an actual brick-and-mortar store.

The shiny little van he drives is the same royal blue as his uniform, and it’s neatly packed with cleaning tools and supplies he’s built up with improvements and augmentations of his own, so that his tools and supplies are better than his coworkers’. He’s clearly the greatest toilet cleaner in Tokyo, or maybe anywhere. When we meet his coworker, Takashi (Tokio Emoto), it’s clear why Hirayama outranks him as his hierarchical superior. Takashi is deliberately goofy looking and clownish, always yammering mindlessly, rating everyone and everything on a scale of ten, and slack at his work, yearning after an ultra-stylish young woman Aya (Aoi Yamada) who’s way out of his league. She responds far more to Hirayama and his collection of favorite cassette tapes he listens to in his van.

Takashi tries to persuade Hirayama to sell some of his tapes, because “analog is very in now.” Takashi wants to borrow the money to court Aya, but Hirayama won’t sell the tapes. He just gives Takashi all the cash in his wallet instead. Hirayama loves his rare Lou Reed tape, worth a hundred and twenty dollars, more than he could possibly love the money.  And it’s not as if he wants to buy anything extra, anyway.

Various songs are played at length to represent Hirayama’s otherwise largely undisclosed emotional life, including Reed’s “Perfect Day,” the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun,” Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” Patti Smith’s “Redondo Beach,” the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon,” Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” and Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” We get indications, later in the film, about the course of Hirayama’s earlier life, which mainly come through his uncomfortable encounters with family members. His teenage niece Niko (Arisa Nakano) shows up on his doorstep, having run away from home, and he moves into his van in order to give her a place to stay for a while. She’s intrigued by the alternative lifestyle he represents, which becomes clear when her mother, Hirayama’s sister Keiko (Yumi Asō), arrives in a sleek chauffeured car to pick Niko up and take her home.

Brother and sister regard each other across a great gulf, separated by opposed choices in life. “Is it true you’re really cleaning toilets?” Keiko asks in a hushed, appalled tone.

And her attempts to get him to visit their father, now suffering from dementia, are in vain. “He’s much different than he was,” Keiko says, which might have been a warning to a different kind of sibling to prepare them for changes in their parent’s cognitive functions. But here it’s more like a reassurance to Hirayama, to persuade him to make a dutiful visit. He still shakes his head in refusal, and after she departs, he weeps. So we get the implications of a very unhappy childhood to account for how this sophisticated aesthete wound up living as he does.

It’s inevitable that the cleanest-lived life will get messy at some point, and as the movie goes on, people and circumstances intrude more and more on Hirayama’s methodical life and complicate his routine. Even the books he reads every night, all of them erudite, mount up in numbers to the point that they overrun his few shelves and are kept in neat stacks on the floor beside the shelves.

“You’re such an intellectual,” says his favorite restaurant owner, who’s called Mama (Sayuri Ishikawa).

“I wouldn’t say that,” he says modestly, though he looks pleased.

Another part of the fantasy is that he can afford to eat out for dinner every night. He doesn’t seem to have a kitchen, and he goes to a public bathhouse to shower. The combination of the life of the working poor, living without what many would regard as necessities, but somehow with the luxuries of the rich, is very much the way the fantasy works. Hirayama is like a prince in exile. He’s “reduced” to cleaning toilets — though they’re the nicest public toilets ever built — but he has turned that way of life into a superior, even a royal, way to live.

To say the least, this film has no criticism to offer of a system which is breaking down to such an extent that we may soon envy the toilet cleaner not because this one representation of an individual’s aestheticism allows him to transcend such a life of labor, but because he actually has a job, a salary, a place to live, and food to eat.

The catalyst for the film was actually a celebration of Tokyo’s public toilets. Wim Wenders was invited to do a short film or a series of shorts about the fabulous new “Tokyo Toilet Project.” He opted to make a full-length narrative film instead that would feature some of the city’s spectacularly designed toilets.

Kōlji Yakusho — who won the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival for this performance — is so sweet faced and expressive, he does much to carry you through the film. Its slowness is an inevitable part of the narrative. Hirayama has pared his life back to such an extent and become so very mindful of the elements within that life, you have to slow down to match his pace. But it’s also a slowness and an attention to routine that we associate with art film. If you’ve suffered at all from the art-film experience, you may groan a little to see a running time that goes slightly over two hours. The film is dedicated to Yasujirō Ozu, one of the greatest Japanese directors, who made a specialty of representing ordinary daily life as not just moving and meaningful but often emotionally cataclysmic.

In the end, Hirayama’s life, with all its difficulties, is fulsomely affirmed. Because he has both the time and the inclination to attend to the world, he can abide with the people who come into his life long enough for genuine connections to be made. His solitude, which is chosen, turns out to allow for more meaningful interactions with people than most of us experience.

If only we’d embrace our loneliness in order to read William Faulkner, lovingly tend plants, clear out and organize our living spaces, and take up photography, paradoxically we’d soon find our community!

Hirayama has found happiness as a toilet cleaner — so why haven’t you been able to manage it? For shame!